“I started off very passionate about writing. When I was young, I thought that I would become a writer. I never, never thought of myself as a person who would be working in the film industry,” Tunisian filmmaker Kaouther Ben Hania, whose “The Man Who Sold His Skin” was nominated for the Best International Feature Film Oscar in 2021, said during her “In Conversation” talk at the Red Sea Film Festival in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. “But I discovered that I didn’t have a sophisticated use of language. The most appropriate language to me was visual rather than written.”
Hania recounted how she shot her first short film “Brèche” in 2005. “It was a very difficult experience: I was young, and the people who did my work were mature. It was daunting, and I was timid. I thought it would be easier to deal with the script, because as a scriptwriter, I’d be alone, I don’t need to deal with anyone. Later on, I discovered that documentaries do not require a large crew. I was not under the pressure of budgeting, production, or dealing with a crew. That was my initial lab, my initial experimentation lab.”
During the conversation, Hania used four films as her touchstone in the conversation: Orson Welles’ mockumentary “F for Fake” (1973), Abbas Kiarostami’s “Close Up” (1990), and “Rashomon” (1950) by Akira Kurosawa and Brian De Palma’s “Carrie” (1976), which she first saw on VHS when she was a teenager. “That film was the turning point for me. I stopped watching melodrama and musical films and switched to storytelling. ‘Carrie’ was my age and in the opening scene she had her monthly period. I thought that, even though she was living in the U.S.A., coming from a very conservative Christian family, she was like me. It made me quite connected to the cinema world because I could see myself in an American film, which only shows that the cinema goes beyond borders.” The other films were illustrative of how truth can be compromised in its retelling.
With “Le Challat de Tunis” (2013), Hania made her first fiction feature. “It was a bridge between documentaries and features, shot with a very small crew, like a documentary. The actors were not professionals.”
She denied that she was a particularly political director. “I just talk about issues that are important to me, such as violence against women. I’m very keen and interested in fairness and justice. I was always enraged against injustice, and the cinema was a way to deal with this injustice.”
In “Beauty and the Dogs” (2017), she tells the story of a rape in a police station. “Inside each one of us, there is evil and good: man and woman. Through script writing, I cover those various layers of my personality. Even the policeman is one of those sublayers.”
Ideas are collected from everywhere. “The Man Who Sold His Skin” was inspired by a Belgian artist who had drawn on the back of a young man and exhibited his work at the Louvre. “When I saw that scene, I was inspired. I jotted down notes to myself. I wanted to understand why that person would feel at ease to expose his back, and how that was linked to colonialism. I wrote the script over five days, but the initial script was not very good. It took six years to produce the film.”
Hania gave a detailed account of her writing process: “I write by myself, so I decided to divide myself into three personalities. The first personality is the lunatic, chaotic artist, with no limits. The second is the engineer, who likes to organize things. And the third is the critic, who always criticizes.
“The first five days are given entirely to the personality of the unhinged artist who writes in candlelight without any limits, writing endlessly. Word vomit. That sounds chaotic, but it is vibrant with life. After that the engineer comes and puts order to these ideas. Then the critic comes in. It’s very important to listen to your inner critic.”
Friends also help with feedback as do Hania’s producers. “My producer is interested in reading books. Whenever I told him about a topic or a theme that I selected, he would go directly to start researching.”
It is this research which Hania finds satisfying: “The most enjoyable thing to me about my profession is to always learn some new thing.”